Radical Psychology
Volume Nine, Issue 1

Special Issue on Girlhood

Carol Kauppi *

The identification of girlhood as an area of study (i.e., girls’ studies) emerged and rapidly expanded during the decade since 2000. Yet there remain substantial gaps in knowledge. The interest in girls’ experiences is informed by research that focuses on the otherness of childhood and girlhood and the understanding that the lived worlds of girls and young women differ from those of adult women in important respects. There are also many ways in which girls’ experiences correspond with those of adult women. The articles in this special issue illustrate both the unique aspects of girlhood and similarities with womanhood.

Suzanne Montz Adams explores issues around identity, self-esteem, communication and relationships in her work with a group of American adolescent girls between the ages of 12 to 14. In describing workshops employing Transformative Language Arts (TLA) which she developed and conducted with adolescent girls, she explains how TLA work with at-risk populations can be a positive force for change; this approach can be helpful to people who have experienced traumatic events such as cancer, rape, juvenile detention or a mental health crisis. Montz Adams draws on feminist scholarship in discussing the disconnection between girls’ firsthand experiences and the reinterpretation of their knowledge by society, which often results in the silencing of girls’ knowledge, dissociation from self, depression, hopelessness or self-destruction. In Transforming the Stories of Adolescent Girls, Montz Adams describes her own experiences of adolescence, the content of her workshop series and the perspectives of girls who attended her TLA workshops.

The central themes in Whispers and Roars: A Feminist Analysis of the Anesthetization of Girls’ Anger pertain to gender role oppression, the suppression of anger, and the adverse impacts on girls’ mental health. Like Montz Adams, Cheryle van Daalen-Smith outlines the roots of her interest in these issues as stemming from personal experience, albeit in her role as a school nurse.  van Daalen-Smith describes her study of Canadian girls and young women between the ages of 14 and 24 which sought to understand how girls’ anger is generated and experienced and how it impacts on their lives. The participants in her study provide compelling information about the ways in which girls’ experiences of anger are disbelieved, punished and pathologized resulting in disconnection with this emotion. van Daalen-Smith argues that the basis of young women’s anger is oppression. The consequences of suppressed anger can include denied authenticity and serious mental health issues. The recommendations outlined by van Daalen-Smith offer important strategies for working towards positive change by addressing the sources of and experiences of anger among girls and women.

S/KIN: Re-Naming Adolescent Trauma Through Film offers a critical analysis of the Hollywood film industry in relation to the use of fairy tales as a tool for perpetuating patriarchal values. Jean Owen’s film S/KIN provides a counterpoint to the mainstream film industry by exploring trauma in adolescence. An adaptation of the seventeenth-century fairy tale, Donkey Skin or Peau d’ane, the film S/KIN addresses a subject that involves traumatic memories which re-emerged through therapy, resulting in a therapeutic story. Owen describes the film and includes still images from it which illustrate the underlying subject matter pertaining to, in her words, “unspeakable events” that occurred during her girlhood. Like Montz Adams, Owen shows how creativity can offer a strategy for healing and overcoming oppressive experiences of girlhood.

Heather Holland explores the experiences of young Canadian mothers aged 16 to 23 with respect to community-based doula care. Her study also provides the perspectives of women who were doula volunteers. A central theme in the article relates to the judgement of and stereotyping of young mothers as being unable to handle labour or breastfeeding and as being poor mothers. Holland shows how doula volunteers provide a woman-centred approach that can provide young mothers with enhanced control and informed choice surrounding pregnancy and the birth experience. The involvement of doulas can mitigate against negative birthing experiences that stem from hierarchical, oppressive and interventionist policies of hospitals that are linked to the medicalization of pregnancy and birth.

Like Montz Adams, van Daalen-Smith, and Owen, Wilson-Buterbaugh explains her personal connection to the topic she addresses in her article, Adoption Induced Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Mothers of the Baby Scoop Era. Wilson-Buterbaugh argues that an adoption industry thrived between 1945 and 1973 when few single mothers retained custody of their babies. She outlines practices related to pregnancy among young unwed mothers. The article summarizes literature on the history of the Baby Scoop Era (BSE), common practices within maternity homes in the USA and the generalized pattern of pathologizing single pregnant women. Wilson-Buterbaugh shares personal experiences and communications with mothers’ experiences of the BSE and explains her view that many women suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a consequence of practices associated with coercive adoption practices.

Carla De Santis explores ideas about the relationship between disability and beauty through creative writing about a real-life event involving a young woman with a hearing impairment who was a participant in the Miss Venezuela industry in 2006. De Santis integrates a feminist analysis into a fictionalized exchange between two women who have opposing viewpoints about the involvement in the Miss Venezuela competition of an adolescent woman with hearing and speech/language challenges. De Santis presents contrasting perspectives on “achievement” and “success” within the context of an industry based on sexist practices involving the exploitation of women’s bodies, the promotion of unrealistic and stereotyped standards of beauty and an emphasis on physical appearance as the most important aspect of a woman’s life. 

In discussing diverse aspects of girls’ and young women’s lives, in drawing upon feminist analysis to interpret experiences, and in using a variety of techniques -- including creative writing, film and qualitative research -- to explore the experiences of girls and young women, these articles make a unique contribution to the relatively new field of girlhood studies.

* Biographical Note

Carol Kauppi is a Professor of Social Work, the MSW Program Coordinator and Director of the Centre for Research in Social Justice and Policy at Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. She is also the Director of a five-year research project, Poverty, Homelessness and Migration in Northern Ontario, a CURA funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. In addition to a focus on homelessness, her research interests in recent years have included girlhood, adolescence, and motherhood in northern communities.